Vampire Weekend may hail from New York City, but with their boat shoes, button downs, and lyrics like, “Irish and proud, baby, naturally/But you got the luck of a Kennedy,” Massachusetts is their true spiritual home.
By Adam Ellsworth
“Boston people really get us,” Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig told the packed house at Agganis Arena last Wednesday night. “You understand what our songs are all about.”
He then fired up the opening chords to “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and everybody went out of their mind.
Having seen Vampire Weekend perform last month at Coachella, I can report that people get excited for that particular song no matter where they are. Still, there is understandably some extra enthusiasm for it here in the Commonwealth.
Vampire Weekend may hail from New York City, but with their boat shoes, button downs, and lyrics like, “Irish and proud, baby, naturally/But you got the luck of a Kennedy,” Massachusetts is their true spiritual home. In fact, when work on their just released third album, Modern Vampires of the City, hit a wall, Koenig, the band’s singer/guitarist/lyricist, and Rostam Batmanglij, the band’s multi-instrumentalist/producer, headed to Martha’s Vineyard for a “writing retreat” to whip songs into shape. Clearly, the Vineyard worked her magic because Modern Vampires of the City is a genuine twenty-first-century classic.
For its ambition, scope, and sheer brilliance, Modern Vampires of the City reminds me of Kanye West’s 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (minus the vocoder and epic song lengths of course). That the latter is a “hip hop” album and the former a “rock” album hardly matters. Those lines of distinction blurred a long time ago, and we’re all better for it. So where Kanye borrowed from Black Sabbath and King Crimson on Dark Twisted Fantasy, Vampire Weekend borrow from New Jersey M.C. YZ on Modern Vampires of the City. And while Koenig certainly doesn’t rap on the album, the mouthful of lyrics in a song like “Step” (not to mention the flowing delivery of those lyrics) are impossible to imagine without the influence of hip hop.
Thematically though, Modern Vampires of the City reminds me of a more unlikely source: U2’s 2004 release How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (HTDAAB). I’d be genuinely surprised if it turned out Koenig and Batmanglij were spinning that album for inspiration on the Vineyard, but the similarities exist none the less. Both albums are reflections of the times in which they were created, and both grapple with the “big issues” of mortality, faith, and love. While neither album is literally a “concept album,” both have a definite arc that carries the listener from the first song to the last. And like HTDAAB, Modern Vampires of the City is, in many ways, a cry out to God in troubling times. The difference is that when Bono cried out to God in 2004, God answered. Koenig has had no such luck in 2013.
Faith, religion, and the Lord show up in more than half of the songs on Modern Vampires of the City, but for the purposes of the album’s arc, the three most important are “Unbelievers,” “Everlasting Arms,” and “Ya Hey.”
In “Unbelievers,” the singer has intellectually decided that there’s no God, but he also recognizes that he could be wrong. If he is, he knows the “fire awaits unbelievers,” but he doesn’t really care. It’s a little cocky perhaps, but it’s also refreshingly honest. Besides, who do those jerks in the fire and brimstone crowd think they are anyway?
In “Everlasting Arms,” the singer hasn’t just intellectually decided that there isn’t a God, he has started to truly accept — to truly feel — that there’s no God, and it’s freaking him out. “Hold me in your everlasting arms/Looked up full of fear/Trapped beneath a chandelier that’s going down,” he sings in the refrain. Whether Koenig intended it or not, this is a restatement of John Lennon’s infamous 1970 lyric, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” but where Lennon was quite happy to disprove (at least as far as he was concerned) the existence of God, Koenig is hardly celebrating his discovery.
Finally, there’s “Ya Hey.” On the one hand, it’s another hip hop reference (the inverse of the 2003 OutKast song “Hey Ya!”), but it’s also just a different way to spell “Yahweh” (“Yahweh” is the last song on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb). “Through the fire and through the flames/You won’t even say your name/Only I am what I am,” Koenig sings before concluding, “But who could ever live that way?” The world would be a less scary place if there were a God, the song argues, but because there isn’t we’re just going to have to move on and take care of ourselves.
At least that’s how I hear these songs. I could be wrong, and if I am it wouldn’t be the first time. But even if I’m right, you don’t need to share Koenig’s lack of faith to see yourself in his struggle, which is the real reason these songs work. Also, I’d hate to imply that that’s “all” the songs are about. The album’s “Worship You” for example, seems to be the song on Modern Vampires of the City that least lends itself to multiple interpretations, and yet, when I hear the lines, “In foreign soil, in foreign land/Who will guide us through the end?” I don’t see pilgrims, but soldiers. To me, it’s not a song about disillusionment with God and religion but with American politics and the misplaced belief that any one person can change everything overnight. But hey, I could be wrong.
I’m far more confident that I’m not mishearing the album’s obsession with mortality, and growing up in general. “There’s a headstone right in front of you/And everyone I know,” the still young, 29-year-old Koenig sings on “Don’t Lie,” which isn’t a very fun thought. The album seems to go back and forth as to whether or not growing up is a good thing. The acceptance inherent in the line “I’m stronger now, I’m ready for the house” from “Step” is contradicted by “You know I love the past cuz I hate suspense” from the album’s lead single, “Diane Young.” It’s enough to make Koenig throw his hands up and sing “I don’t want to live like this/But I don’t wanna die,” at the end of “Finger Back.”
In the middle of all this is “Hannah Hunt.” Sonically, it’s a palate cleanser, with its double bass slides and gentle piano. Lyrically, it tells the story of a young couple on a cross-country road trip “from Providence to Phoenix” (if you don’t think those city names were picked for their symbolism, then you’ve never listened to Vampire Weekend before). The song actually dates back to the band’s early days, but they’ve only now got it right, according to a recent interview in Pitchfork. “Hannah Hunt” stands as a pivot point between where Vampire Weekend have been and where they’re going.
If Modern Vampires of the City really is, as Koenig has said, the final piece of a trilogy, then this third album, and especially its opening song “Obvious Bicycle,” is a commencement speech for all the kids who spent their college years dancing and drinking and screwing to the sounds of 2008’s Vampire Weekend and 2010’s Contra. “Here’s what we’ve learned these past few years,” the band seems to be saying. At times, what they’ve learned isn’t pretty (there’s nothing else in their catalogue that sounds as dire as “Hudson”). However, the graduates shouldn’t strive to take up the ugly facts of life too quickly. “You take your time, young lion,” is the advice the band gives in “Young Lion,” the album’s final song. Or, as U2 put it on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb: “Baby slow down/The end is not as fun as the start.”
Coincidently, Vampire Weekend’s Agganis performance came just days before the arena was used for an actual college commencement ceremony. But the band didn’t seem to have much interest in sharing hard truths with those assembled. They were just there to provide some entertainment.
And entertain they did, despite being plagued for most of the night with technical issues and sound problems that caused extra-long pauses between songs. Modern Vampires of the City had been released the day before the concert, but most of the set list was drawn from the band’s 2008 debut. No-one seemed to mind, but it was an interesting decision for a group that was supposed to be out promoting a new album.
When they did finally play a new song, it was the lead single “Diane Young,” and only after sufficiently warming up the crowd with “Cousins” and “White Sky” off of Contra and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “I Stand Corrected” off of Vampire Weekend. “Step” followed, showcasing Batmanglij’s keyboards, though those keyboards were a little too loud for the mix, and Koenig’s vocals lacked the agility of the recorded version.
It was immediately after that song ended that the technical difficulties became apparent. The band huddled to discuss the problems and inform their crew of the issues. After a lengthy pause, Koenig went to the mic to apologize for the delay, but before he could continue his explanation, drummer Chris Tomson yelled out, “Let’s do this!” and then barreled into fan favorite “Holiday.”
While there’s no doubt that Koenig and Batmanglij are the leaders of Vampire Weekend, onstage, it’s Tomson and bassist Chris Baio that make the whole operation go. Tomson is a furious drummer, whether he’s playing his traditional kit or the electronic drum pad featured in many of the band’s songs, and Baio, in addition to being a melodic and fluid player, is one of the most inventive dancers in modern rock and roll. He has perfected a step that is somewhat reminiscent of the pop and lock, but only involves his legs. That Baio was wearing red pants during the Agganis concert only accentuated his unique moves.
Another delay followed “Holiday,” and again Koenig took to the mic to apologize.
“We hate to keep you waiting, so we’re just going to go ahead and try this,” Koenig finally said before “Unbelievers.” It was a slightly restrained performance, perhaps because of the sound problems, though it was hard not to respect the band’s efforts to put on a brave face and battle on. “A-Punk,” a song Vampire Weekend can play in their sleep, followed and the energy returned.
The (spiritual) hometown crowd was treated next to “Boston (Ladies of Cambridge),” an obscure song that was the b-side to “Mansard Roof,” and was included on the Japanese version of Vampire Weekend. That the Japanese versions of albums so often include extra bonus tracks is a fact of rock and roll that I’ll never understand. Regardless, the Japanese will never appreciate that song as much as the Agganis crowd did last Wednesday night.
As the concert went into its homestretch, it was again Tomson and Baio who kept the vitality level up. In the interlude between “Horchata” and “Everlasting Arms,” Tomson held a steady beat on his electric drum pad while Baio led the audience in the classic “rock concert overhead clap.” It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, but bands wouldn’t still do it if it didn’t work. As a result, “Everlasting Arms” was the one Modern Vampires of the City song the band played at Agganis that undeniably worked.
The rest of the main set and encore incorporated songs from all three of the band’s albums, including “Ya Hey,” “Run,” and “One (Blake’s Got a New Face).”
“There’s no New York/Boston rivalry with us,” Koenig told the crowd when he addressed them for the last time.
The band then played their final song of the night, “Walcott,” to the utter delight of everyone. Like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” you don’t have to be from Massachusetts to love “Walcott,” but it certainly helps. Besides, only a Masshole would understand the humor in lyrics like, “Walcott/Fuck the women from Wellfleet/Fuck the bears out in Provincetown/Heed my words and take flight.”
Yeah, Vampire Weekend can claim to be from New York all they want. With lyrics like that, we in the Commonwealth know better.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has an MS in journalism from Boston University and a BA in literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.